PD Editorial: Lessons of split verdict in Bradley Manning trial

  • In this July 30, 2013 photo, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted out of a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md. Few Americans in living memory have emerged from obscurity to become such polarizing public figures _ admired by many around the world, fiercely denigrated by many in his homeland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Pfc. Bradley Manning's trial wasn't about who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic records. He admitted his responsibility, and he faces a long prison sentence.

At issue was whether Manning's actions rose to the level of aiding the enemy, an offense punishable by death.

In delivering a mixed verdict, the military judge presiding over the case struck a commendable balance between protecting national security and maintaining an informed public in a democratic society.

Manning, an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, gave some 700,000 documents to Wikileaks, which in turn posted some of them online and shared others with news organizations in the United States and abroad. Among them were diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghan war logs and a cockpit video showing a U.S. helicopter shooting and killing civilians, including two journalists from the British news agency Reuters.

Manning denied any desire to bring down the government, saying he wanted to "spark a debate" about U.S. foreign policy and show the "day-to-day realities" of the war in Iraq. Some of the material he leaked, such as the cockpit video, served that purpose. But he turned over so much that he couldn't have known everything that was contained in the documents.

Military prosecutors said Manning knew that al-Qaida would have access to the information and, therefore, he was guilty of aiding the enemy. The prosecutors also accused him of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, a law the Obama administration has used repeatedly in civilian courts to target those who leak classified information.

Col. Denise Lind, the military judge, acquitted Manning of aiding the enemy and convicted him of several violations of the Espionage Act. He faces up to 136 years in prison.

Manning's supporters say he should be freed. He's been compared to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret history that exposed government lies and helped change public views of the Vietnam War. But Ellsberg also was arrested and stood trial, though his case was dismissed because of government misconduct uncovered during Watergate.

Whistle-blowers serve an important role in our democratic society, but there are risks involved, including arrest and prosecution. Or, as Edward Snowden is learning, exile.

There also is risk in overzealous pursuit of whistle-blowers.

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